Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s first charges in his sprawling Russia investigation were a one-two blow that partially caught the White House off guard but also offered a measure of relief, according to several of President Donald Trump’s aides, advisers, lawyers and others close to the case.
The indictments of former campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates didn’t mention Trump or the campaign. And George Papadopoulos, who cut a plea deal, was a low-level adviser who had long separated from Trump’s orbit and was unknown to many senior officials.
But Mueller’s moves also provided some of the strongest evidence yet of potential collusion between the campaign and Russia and created a new layer of issues in an unfolding probe that has helped keep the president’s approval ratings below 40 percent, driven him periodically mad and distracted from a cohesive agenda.
Mueller on Monday accused Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, of illegally lobbying for Ukraine, lying about his work and not paying taxes on tens of millions in profits that he held in offshore accounts. Gates, another campaign aide and a longtime Manafort associate, was also charged. Both pleaded not guilty.
While the White House had been girding for a Manafort indictment, senior officials were caught off guard by a more unsettling development — a plea deal with Papadopoulos, a former campaign adviser who said he lied to the FBI about conversations with Russia-linked officials, in which he was promised “dirt” and “thousands of emails” regarding Hillary Clinton.
More problems are likely to come. At the plea hearing for Papadopoulos earlier this month, Mueller’s team said his plea was only a small part in a “large-scale” investigation.
Still, several White House officials, speaking privately to describe internal meetings, said there wasn’t “as much of a freakout as you might think,” in the words of one.
Trump, who has obsessed about Mueller’s probe, asked a number of people on Monday whether the charges were within the special counsel’s mandate — and how he should respond, according to one senior official and one adviser. He has kept close tabs on the investigation, several friends and aides said, asking for frequent updates on who was testifying and how the White House is responding.
While he hasn’t lost his cool as frequently in recent months, he continues to complain about the probe, asking why the congressional probes continue and occasionally blasting Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the federal Russia investigation, the friends and aides said.
While Trump has complained about the investigation, his lawyers have convinced him that Mueller currently poses little threat to him — and will ultimately vindicate him. Ty Cobb, one of Trump’s personal attorneys, has urged the White House to give over all documents quickly and try to wrap the interviews by the end of 2017.
But Mueller’s investigation is still at an early stage and could produce more bombshells. Several Trump aides, including communications director Hope Hicks and White House counsel Don McGahn, are scheduled to meet with Mueller’s team in upcoming weeks. The White House is continuing to produce documents, senior officials said, and Mueller’s team has made several follow-up requests on previous document requests.
These requests could lead Mueller’s probe in new directions. “This is what happens with special prosecutors all the time,” said Jamil Jaffer, the founder of the National Security Institute at George Mason University and a former counsel for George W. Bush. “They ultimately indict people on issues that are unrelated to the underlying cause of the investigation.”
Among senior White House aides, Trump confidantes, advisers and others, Manafort’s indictment was only a matter of timing. Cobb had told colleagues it was likely several months ago and Trump had been told to expect the news, two advisers said.
Over the weekend, White House officials had already begun discussing a response “and a strategy to distance ourselves if it didn’t involve the campaign,” one official said. That came after a CNN report that said charges had been filed under seal on Friday.
White House officials have also told others for several months that they expect former national security adviser Michael Flynn will be indicted, possibly for undisclosed foreign lobbying work, according to aides and advisers, and grand jury testimony has continued. Flynn’s lawyer declined to comment Monday, and he hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.
The Papadopoulos news, however, was unexpected inside the White House. Several senior White House officials and campaign aides said they knew little about him and had spent the morning trying to sift through old campaign emails to see if they’d had contact with him, if they were on calls with him and what exactly his role was.
“I have no idea who that guy is,” one former senior campaign official said. “Or if he was listening to anyone or just going rogue.”
Several Trump advisers and confidants noted that Papadopoulos had cooperated with investigators for months, and that federal authorities obviously saw him as valuable because he was signed up as a cooperating witness.
One line in particular stood out in the indictment to several officials: “Following his arrest, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met with the Government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions.”
The White House took pains to cast the news as unrelated to them.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Sorry, but there is NO collusion!”
In a lengthy soliloquy to open the daily briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told a lengthy tale of reporters drinking beer at a bar and the tax rates they could face. Sanders admitted the tale was “silly,” but it did soak up valuable time.
Sanders said the news that a campaign aide had pleaded guilty to lying about meetings with Russia-linked contacts to FBI agents was not as consequential as Clinton’s alleged misdeeds. She said Trump had not spoken to Manafort since February and that he had only played a role in the convention.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities,” she said of the charges.
She said Pappadopoulos had an “extremely limited” role and served in a “volunteer position.”
Sanders also said Trump had no plan to oust Mueller, a position mirrored by several other officials privately — where they are often more candid.
The White House asked allies to downplay Manafort by reminding reporters he wasn’t an administration official. The strategy, two people said, is to continue to muddy the waters by focusing on Clinton and other Democrats like lobbyist Tony Podesta, who announced on Monday that he had resigned from his firm after coming under investigation by Mueller.
“The bottom line is they didn’t show any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia,” said Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend and the CEO of Newsmax.
Barry Bennett, a former senior campaign aide, noted that Papadopoulos’ stint on the Trump campaign followed a brief role advising the campaign of Ben Carson, who dropped out of the race after Trump gained steam.
Trump had previously called Papadopoulos an “excellent guy” during a March 2016 meeting with the Washington Post editorial board and was with him in a small national security meeting that Trump posted about on Twitter.
But several advisers said Monday that Trump had no idea who Papadopoulos was and simply praised him because he needed people surrounding him that sounded intelligent.
“Have no idea how he got on Trump list. Did not and would not have suggested it. All the campaigns were rushing to have a panel of foreign affairs advisors. He was one of many for Carson. Not a heavy weight,” Bennett said.
A lawyer for Papadopoulos said his client would have his say at the appropriate time.
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